Order of Multitudes

The Pleasures and Pains of Digital Virality: A Conversation with Dr. Paula Harper

Dr. Paula Harper is an Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who researches virality, music, and the Internet. She received her Ph.D in Historical Musicology from Columbia University in 2019, and prior to her appointment at UNL, she served as a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Washington University in St. Louis. Personally and professionally invested in social media, Dr. Harper sat down with me to talk about platformization, our digital pandemic lives, and the ambivalence towards fast-changing digital cultures. 

Allison Chu: Tell us about your academic background and how it shaped your research interests.

Paula Harper: My short tagline is: I research music, sound, and the Internet. I am currently working on a book on Internet virality and what music has to do with that, called Viral Musicking and the Rise of Noisy Platforms. It’s a rethinking of my dissertation, which I completed at Columbia in 2019. I’m broadly interested in music on the Internet: music circulation, people making music, people listening to music, and digital ecosystems in the 21st century. I am interested in gender, fandom, and the changing nature of musical celebrity in the digital world. I think of myself as a music historian, but a music historian of the very recent past. I think it has become increasingly obvious to a lot of folks the urgency to do historical work with and on the Internet and in digital cultures, and to think about the archival possibilities and the precarity of the Internet. One manifestation of this includes work on Taylor Swift. This past summer I helped organize a study day and am currently co-editing a book of Taylor Swift scholarship.

I came to all of this in a roundabout way. I did my undergrad at the University of Chicago, and I fell into the study of music. I liked choral singing, and I started taking music classes, and I accidentally wound up with a music major and thought that I could be a musicologist studying 16th century choral music. But it turns out what you enjoy as a performer and even as a listener doesn’t necessarily align with the kinds of things you should be studying as a researcher. It took the latter part of undergrad and a whole master’s degree at the University of Washington to figure that out. When I arrived at Columbia, I took a wonderful seminar on music and technology with Karen Henson for which I wrote a final paper about Beyoncé and liveness in the digital age. That was my first conference paper, and no one stopped me from doing research on Beyoncé, and I never looked back.

Allison Chu: What excites you about studying digital music cultures? What was it that pulled you into this world?

Paula Harper: Well, that paper and that seminar definitely pulled me in. Writing the paper got me to look at and listen to Beyoncé through a lens of media and technology, and this led to the origin story for my dissertation: the 2013 surprise release of Beyonce’s first visual album. I woke up the morning that it dropped, and by the time I had gotten out of bed, I had 1) become aware that something was happening; 2) learned that there was this surprise album; 3) purchased the album; and 4) was listening to it—all before I had gotten out of bed. As I was brushing my teeth later, I thought, “Wait, what has just happened? How did we get to a place where Beyoncé can release an album, and I can find out about it, purchase it, listen to it—all through social media, and all as part of my morning routine, pre-tooth brushing?” That was the catalyst that pushed me to dig into earlier iterations of Internet virality, going back all the way to the truly weird and delightful stuff of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

I find the dynamism of digital music cultures both very stressful and also engaging. I can find patterns and points of resonance as new things crop up. I can say, “that reminds me of the hampster dance, or that reminds me of a viral video from 2006.” But there’s so much novelty, and new things pop up that feel like a whole conference paper, a book chapter, maybe even a whole book to be written about something that is deeply ephemeral—but that also grabs everyone, gets everyone talking and participating in these really fascinating ways.

Allison Chu: Throughout this Sawyer Seminar, we’ve been thinking about the organization of knowledge in the twenty-first century. I think we can’t talk about the twenty-first century without also acknowledging the influence of social media. How does social media foster the circulation of information? And how do you see the role of music in the circulation and production of information?

Paula Harper: I’m always thinking about social media, and in particular, social media as platforms. On the one hand, there is a strong idea, based in earlier utopian Web 2.0 discourse, of the gift economy and social media as an activity of curation. One of the roles that people can inhabit as users of social media is to pass along experiences that they have found pleasurable, and that they want other people to find pleasurable. This is an optimistic, idealized sociality, where you’ve created or are sharing something. And this is what drives virality—you want to be a part of the process, helping other people have the same pleasurable, thought-provoking, or (on the flip side) rage-inducing experiences. (And, as it turns out, that rage or fury is a powerful driver of sharing, and is deeply lucrative for the people in charge of the platforms.) These are all strong, affectively charged experiences that you want to share with other people, both those that you know, and those that you don’t—but have the power to potentially reach with this affectively charged object.

But we also have the platform, and one of the major things in terms of the contemporary organization of information is the platformization of culture and of digital life, and a lot of folks have worked on this. For example, Tarleton Gillespie is a scholar who works on platforms and moderation, and he talks about the work that the metaphor of the platform does. A platform connotes neutrality, a level surface, but we can also think of a train platform, a platform of access, delivery, circulation, or exchange. Maybe this is getting more pessimistic, but the platformization of digital space turns everything into modular content, and we see in response a trend to turn everything into something that can fit into whatever it has to be, for a particular platform. For example, turning a person, or a brand, or a concept into something that fits into the boxes and metadata, the input portals of a Facebook profile. Or turning everything into something that fits in a tweet, or turning every social issue, but also pictures of food and babies, into an Instagram post. It’s a packaging of a huge breadth of stuff into regular modules of content. 

So what is the role of music in all of this? One of the big claims of my dissertation and my book is that Internet virality is musical. It operates on logics of catchiness, pleasure, affect, and sociality. It plays on the stick-in-your-head-ness and the pass-it-on-to-a-community-ness, things that are deeply musical. The ways that things go viral on digital media platforms can be usefully interpreted as a kind of musical practice. A lot of digital culture is also musical. People are sharing Beyoncé’s album, or Taylor Swift’s album, but things are also becoming musical in a literal way as part of their circulation. To me, that pulls on a lot of the ways that music scholars think of music. We think of music as being pleasurable, fun, and catchy. It brings people together in social formations of listeners and performers. But on the flip side, if you think of a viral event, someone usually makes a musical version of it. While that musicality can bring us together, it also leverages the idea of music as a specialist endeavor. Somebody who can make something musical becomes an elevated kind of viral participant. They have these (perceived) extraordinary capacities to compose something musical, even if it is absolutely ridiculous. On Twitter, someone recently sonified the patterns of Wordle, and it has a spectacular quality that adds to the viral event. 

Allison Chu: I’m struck by the way you’re describing virality as all centering the experience, rather than the content of the material. What is the relationship between the experience of viral material and its content?

Paula Harper: Yes! Sometimes I fear that as a researcher, I fall into this bigger logic that assumes everything is just modules of fungible content, and maybe there is an answer that says yes, there are viral logics and trajectories, ways of engaging with phenomena in the digital world that are repetitive and can be transferred from one object to another. That said, specificity does matter, and sometimes that specificity is arbitrary. I’m working on a chapter about the Rickroll and thinking about the specificity of that song. It could have been any weird 80s song and music video. It could have been, but there are also a couple of things that make this song specifically engaging: the bizarre mismatch between Rick Astley’s deep voice and his tiny ginger body, for example. But it also could have been anything. It’s a tension between the circuitry or the apparatus that can work around a variety of phenomena, and the particularity, the specialness, the joy of those particular phenomena.

Allison Chu: It’s impossible to talk about “virality” without also thinking about our ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has also shifted how we work and live. Virality, contagion, viruses, these are terms that have become commonplace in our daily language. Has the pandemic influenced your work on “virality” at all, and how so?

Paula Harper: One of the avenues for research on virality, whether digital or not, is to look at the way that disparity, difference, and lines of oppression get mapped onto and are realized through viral circulation. Scholars can examine the outsized impacts of virality on populations who are marginalized and who have been societally disadvantaged. In my research, I had already been thinking about the ways that this applies to digital virality. Then when the pandemic occurred, those realities were brought to the forefront. Things that I had been working with in ways that felt a bit more abstract, things I thought that I had to argue and unpack, became gutting and depressing parts of the lived reality of a lot of folks, and part of the known and discussed reality around viruses, their circulations and impacts.

I had originally ended my dissertation by exploring how negative affect and the processes of viral circulation—the circulation of hate and rage—have been leveraged by social media companies to a great deal of profit and even helped determine the election outcomes. Beyond my work, there was already a growing reaction against virality: are we approaching the end of virality? Meaning, are we going to get to a point where we move away from these massive tectonic plates of behemoth digital platforms that have taken up all of the real estate of our digital lives? How sometimes it feels like there is no “outside” to these giant platforms. All of our digital engagement is happening under the auspices of this handful of giant technological players. To think about going beyond virality is also to think about moving outside of this system of massive platforms. The pandemic has animated this conversation, especially around the mitigation of virality, but a solution is not as clear cut. What can we do to mitigate the viral, and what are the problems with being so fully connected and unable to disconnect? But on the other hand, the pandemic was also a time in which being connected through those all-encompassing platforms was deeply important and necessary for a lot of people. It was a source of communication, joy, and information sharing. I think amplifying that question of post-virality, and of a post-platformized digital landscape, is really necessary.

Allison Chu: I think that there’s a lot of movement to log off social media platforms in order to disconnect because, with the pandemic, things have become overly stimulating and digital connections were exacerbated.

Paula Harper: Yes, and there is a point in the conversation where I always fall back on my role as a historian. I cannot prognosticate because I’m a historian! I have no idea what is going to happen in the future! But I will say that I would personally, professionally, and globally be excited to see the possibilities of a kind of space where this expectation of ubiquitous and interpersonal connectivity managed by a couple of large corporations is not the norm, and people can move towards smaller and more bespoke, interpersonal, and curated communities, digital and otherwise. And I think that the implications for virality would be very different. We would not be in a space where Beyoncé could drop a surprise album and sell hundreds of thousands of copies almost immediately. I would be excited to see what kinds of things get created and circulated in that different ecosystem (or those different ecosystems).

Allison Chu: We often get caught up in our criticisms of these social media platforms, and digital platforms in general, and we find ourselves complaining about the negative effects just as we’re doing here. But I’m curious if there is anything redeeming about virality in these social media platforms. Is it possible to look at the utopian ideals of what these platforms were imagined to be, see them as more than naive, and not criticize them to death? Is there anything our experiences with digital music cultures can teach us about sharing, organizing, and producing knowledge?

Paula Harper: I was having an unrelated conversation with my partner in which I was complaining about something, and I basically said, “I am an optimist. That’s why I’m so sad all the time.” That’s the space I inhabit while doing this research. It’s an additional answer to the question, “what keeps you coming back to this?” I, like many other people, find these things delightful. I find a great deal of pleasure in listening to someone’s wacky musicalization of a cat on a piano, and they’ve put a jazz harmony underneath the cat. That’s forty seconds of my life that I’m feeling great and thinking about the musicality of cats, and I love that! It makes me happy! I do think that it’s almost a trope driven fully into the ground to be critical of these massive platforms and their workings, to understand the absolutely uncontroversial truism that we are not the customers, we are the product. But while that is absolutely true, it is also still true that, in the midst of this, people are putting jazz harmonies underneath the piano playing cat, and maybe they’re doing that because they’re trying to become an Internet celebrity, but maybe they’re not. Either way, I’m enjoying it, so this is my optimism. Yes, we are in a space where a lot of things are not great—the state of the music industry under the streaming regime is massively not great for artists!—but also, this is a time and place in which the definition of a musician has broadened. I’m on a crusade as a teacher and scholar to help a broader number of students think of themselves as musicians. We’ve got folks who are on TikTok participating in music and making their own remixes. We have applications that are helping people create music in much more accessible ways than the traditional music conservatory style allows for. So when I need to focus on the positives in this research, I’m focusing on the real efflorescence of people creating music. Sometimes it’s silly music, sometimes it’s bad music, and that’s great to me. I love that people are out there, creating heinous monstrosities and posting them as TikTok audios and seeing what people come up with. I think that’s delightful.